When Patrick Stewart OBE enters the restaurant, he is almost invisible. A slight figure in jeans and baseball cap, you'd never think that this is one of our greatest stage actors. Only when he removes his cap, to reveal that shaved head, do you sense the personal magnetism. At the sound of his voice - mellifluous, a bit fruity - waiters flock to our table (there are Star Trek and X-Men fans lurking everywhere).
It's enough to drive you insane. But Stewart knows how to switch off the star quality. "I keep my head down. It's absolutely essential to me. I determined that's how it was going to be when I was living in Hollywood. Some actors take that course, others live in their guarded compound with security and blackout windows and so forth. I go to the dry cleaners, I go to the market, I do my own shopping."
Today Stewart divides his time between a flat in London and his house in north Yorkshire. He bought the latter 15 years ago, and every night he lived in LA he dreamed of moving back there. But for the next six months he's based in Stratford. His performance as the male lead in Antony and Cleopatra has received ecstatic reviews, and in July he opens as Prospero in The Tempest. After years of playing supporting roles at the RSC, you sense it's a personal validation.
"There's one problem about Stratford," he laughs. "For the most part it's easy being part of a community, but wherever tourists gather, there's trouble." I have a vision of Trekkies queuing up to touch the flesh. "Something happens to people when they're on holiday. They lose their sense of judgement."
He's been voted the sexiest man on the planet (and, heavens, a lesbian icon), but Stewart is hardly vain. (omega) "Early in my career I never thought of myself as a leading man," he explains. "I was under the impression there were certain requirements. I assumed they should be tall, and glamorous... none of those could be found in me. I was a character actor when I was 17, never a juvenile. It's the same with my son Dan who's an actor; he never got gorgeous young man roles. But now that he's in his thirties, he's coming into his own."
Ashley Jensen, his co-star in the new British sci-fi series Eleventh Hour, says Stewart is brilliant at motivating other actors. Last year, I saw him take control of a macho press conference through sheer charm alone; he wears good manners like a weapon. But one senses a darker side.
There has been a tendency to patronise Stewart as a bluff northerner who sold out for sci-fi. He's worked with Peter Brook and played Othello with an otherwise all-black cast. His one-man show, A Christmas Carol, is an extraordinary tour de force. But there's also a sadness that he never got near the glamorous tragedians: Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet. Arguably all that rage and spirit went into Star Trek. The wrong vehicle perhaps, but another form of utopian vision.
He tells me about a fan letter that reduced him to tears. "It was from a Las Vegas police sergeant, he wasn't asking for anything, he just wrote and said how much the show meant to him, and that he loved his work but there were many times when it made him very low and very despairing about society. He said, 'When that happens, I go home and watch Next Generation and it restores my belief that it will get better.'"
Reading between the lines, Stewart had a bumpy childhood. Born in Mirfield, Yorkshire in 1940, he was the youngest of three brothers. He wasn't close to his father, a regimental sergeant major. "Nobody was," he says dryly. He attended the local secondary modern school where "the greatest thing that ever happened to me" was after he read Shylock aloud, his teacher told him, "Stewart, you're good at this. You should do it for a living." "I just felt safe on stage," he says. "All the tension in my body seeped away. Everything seemed so much more manageable than life."
He left school at 15 to work on a local newspaper, then was awarded a county scholarship to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (for which he remains eternally grateful). But it wasn't plain sailing.
By the age of 19, he was bald (alopecia runs in his family). "Most of my hair went within a year and I was very depressed about it. But it was possibly one of the best things that could have happened. And of course it means I've got a head that's the perfect block for wearing hairpieces. I'm a wig makers' dream."
He joined the RSC in 1966, then the National in the early 1980s. There were TV roles in I, Claudius and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it wasn't until he was nearly 50 and he was cast as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation that he became a household name.
In 2000, Stewart worship went through the roof when Bryan Singer offered him the role of Professor Charles Xavier, head of a group of mutants, in X-Men. He defines it as "high-level, expensive entertainment held together by serious social issues. It's important that these stories are about people who are outside the conventional view of what's normal: who have to find their place and role in the world."
Released next month, the third installment, X-Men: The Last Stand, has been troubled. Singer was busy directing Superman Returns and his replacement Matthew Vaughan pulled out at the last minute, but Stewart is confident that, under the direction of the new director Brett Ratner it will be the best ever. "The third movie perhaps deals with the issue of difference most specifically because - and I don't think I'm giving away anything here, or at least it's too late for the studio to do anything to me - there's a cure."
As a younger man, Stewart says he was over-serious. He tells a story of how on Star Trek, a colleague said, "Come on, we're here to have fun," to which Stewart replied: "Fun? We're here to work." The cast teased him mercilessly about that for years.
Today he's less precious. As well as appearing on The Simpsons, he sent himself up brilliantly as a sex-mad thesp in Extras, coming in as a late replacement for Jude Law. "All actors have a suspicion they were the second choice," he laughs. "Long ago Paul Schofield said to me, 'You should always assume that any role offered to you has been offered to Paul Newman.'"
He's a huge fan of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. "They wrote the episode in 10 days. I may have changed a word or two, and yes acting in The Tempest was my idea, partly because I didn't have to learn it. But they took the idea of me, Patrick Stewart, the actor and asked, 'What if...?' The finished show looked like there was a lot of improvisation but it was rigorous on the text. It was enormously funny but at times deeply moving. I wanted to look away from some of the scenes - such courage from the guest stars."
Not least from Stewart himself. He once said he specialised in playing "fucked-up madmen" and for years he didn't feel confident enough to play being in love. Hollywood destroyed his own first marriage to choreographer Sheila Falconer. They have two children, Daniel and Sophie, a florist. Stewart openly admits, "I messed up too many times to be a good father. I have two great kids and the sense of loyalty they have is very strong but I was completely wrapped up in my career during those early years."
He married Star Trek production assistant Wendy Neuss in 2000 but they divorced after three years; acting in the West End play The Master Builder, he had fallen in love with his co-star, Lisa Dillon, who was 39 years his junior. The tabloids had a field day.
Today he says of Dillon simply, "She's an extraordinarily gifted young woman with a brilliant future. Every single project she does, whether stage or TV, is of such a high caliber. This is a big career in the making and it's very exciting to see that."
It's hard to believe he is now 66 (like his X-Men co-star, Ian McKellen, he proudly sports a bus pass). On stage, he looks supremely fit. He spent seven months working out before playing Antony, which should dispel any worries about his health. In 2004 he underwent angioplasty, then last year the tabloids claimed he had a heart attack, a fact he dismisses robustly.
"Last May I was filming Eleventh Hour and I wasn't feeling too good one morning. The producer said, 'Come on you've got a break let's just check it out.' Well, some unhelpful busybody called one of the tabloids, and they instantly claimed I'd been taken in with a suspected heart attack," he sighs. "I went into A&E, they said, 'You're fine.' Half an hour later I was running around on set with a gun in my hands."
For Antony, he's sporting a grey wig, which proves how much more handsome he is bald. "I wanted the sense of a once-gorgeous man whose physical attraction is waning." He says it's partly based on Richard Burton and George Best - modern heroes who threw fame away on drinking and addictive relationships. "I think there's a real sexual dependence. Harriet [Walter who plays Cleopatra] and I can behave like teenagers even though we are clearly not."
Given his own relationship history, some have accused Stewart of suffering from a male midlife crisis himself, but the charge doesn't seem fair. There's something curiously moral about the actor - one of the reasons why his outrageous Extras persona was such a hoot. For example, he takes his role as Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield seriously. "I made it a condition of accepting the job that I would not just be a ceremonial figure who turns up to hand out degrees." Admissions have risen 23 per cent since he started. "Not bad for a boy who left secondary modern at 15."
Stewart is also a life-long socialist. "I was moved along by a policeman during the first election after the Second World War for carrying a placard. I was six. My father was a very strong trade unionist and those fundamental issues of Labour were ingrained into me." He's a guest at Chequers, but no sycophant.
"I feel the war in Iraq was a mistake. I'm one of those who was convinced that we should have pursued, with the United Nations, the resolutions that were on the table further. I thought war was precipitate. I have not burned my Labour membership card, like one or two people I know, much as I respect their decision."
Politics has never been about fashion, he insists. "Everyone seems to be able to pass over the fact that there are poor people, it's a kind of concept that gets overlooked somehow, although maybe at times the Labour Party has been distracted," he says sternly.
He campaigns for Amnesty and worries about global warming. He's even a wet blanket about space travel. "I think that the unmanned space flights are absolutely thrilling," he says. "But when they start talking about manned flights to Mars, I do feel I would just rather see all of that money spent on our world's problems, which are massive."
There's something rather camp about Stewart, and he has no problem accessing his feminine side. He admits being addicted to Strictly Come Dancing. After Star Trek finished, he played a flamboyant interior decorator in the wonderful gay rom-com, Jeffrey. Then there was his guest appearance as an opera buff who mistakenly pursues Kelsey Grammar on Frasier.
Filming the latter was terrifying. "I'm a huge admirer of Kelsey but I'd been warned by the cast, 'Kelsey will appear not to know it right up to the take. Don't be alarmed.' We'd be running the script in the make-up run and he still didn't know it. Thank God I'd been warned or I'd have run. But suddenly in front of the camera, bang, bang, bang, he was right on top of it."
He's fiddling with his hat again, a sign he has to make a dash for the Post Office and try to outwit the Trekkies. (Wandering round Stratford later that weekend, I find myself playing the game of "spot Patrick". There he is on the high street. Then again walking by the river. It's easy once you know what you're looking for.) He's clearly thrilled to be back here at the RSC, but does he worry about putting his film career on hold? "There are so few great film roles. Maybe three, four a year if you're lucky... Capote, Brokeback Mountain, Hidden," he counts them off on one hand. "In the theatre there are 400 years of roles to choose from."
'Antony and Cleopatra' is on until 14 October at the Swan Theatre, and 'The Tempest' opens on 28 July at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford (tel: 0870 609 1110). 'X-Men: The Last Stand' opens in MayReuse content